Facets' Multi-"Medea"; Von Trier's Masterwork Finally Made Available, and Other Savior Stories
by Anthony Kaufman
In the late eighties, long before Dogme 95 and the digital revolution, Lars von Trier's "Medea," a 76-minute tour de force produced for Danish television, proved just how evocative and liberating video could be. Gauzy cavernous spaces, candle-lit faces, and de-saturated landscapes hauntingly mix to form what critic Jonathan Rosenbaum called an "exhilarating visual feast." Adding to the film's power is Euripides's classic tale of revenge, as filtered through von Trier's obsessions with feminine sacrifice, horses, and hangings. If only all digital filmmakers could see the mutability and creativity possible with the medium, think how far video directors could have come by now.
"Medea"'s pedigree also benefits from a script supposedly written by Danish legend Carl Theodor Dreyer ("The Passion of Joan of Arc," "Ordet"). Though von Trier claimed to be in constant "telepathic communications" with the late great director during the making of the movie, Rosenbaum notes in a 1997 article for the Chicago Reader the liberties that the Danish heir took with his predecessor's screenplay. "Medea" is largely von Trier's own creation, but that only adds to the fun: one can watch the movie as a preparatory study for any number of von Trier's features, from "Element of Crime" to "Breaking the Waves" to "Dancer in the Dark."
But this often brilliant, at times breathtaking, slice of auteur cinema has rarely been seen in North America. After a U.S. premiere at the 1996 New York Video Festival, a brief run at Facets Cinematheque in Chicago the following year, and a short-lived showing on the Independent Film Channel in the summer of 2000, "Medea" has been mostly overlooked -- until now. Last weekend, Facets Multi-Media released "Medea" at the Screening Room in New York and the Starz! Film Center in Denver; next Friday, the film expands to the Roxie and Rafael Film Center in the San Francisco area and the company is "actively seeking" more bookings. The good news continues May 20 when Facets releases "Medea" on DVD.
According to Facets, the long-delayed release of "Medea" is a result of the Danish producer's "lack of attention" to video and public exhibition rights. After Facets sought out the film for both theatrical and ancillary markets, "a lot of effort was required to figure all that out," said a Facets representative. "We thank our colleagues in Denmark for their help in making our pursuit successful."
It won't be the first (or last) time that Facets has resurrected an undiscovered foreign gem. Perhaps the most long-awaited and prestigious is Krzysztof Kieslowski's "The Decalogue," another made-for-TV masterwork stranded in distribution limbo for many years until Facets joined forces with New Yorker Films to bring the film to U.S. audiences. "He's a savior of film," New Yorker Films' Dan Talbot once commented about Facets' Czech-born director Milos Stehlik. "It's astonishing what that fellow has put together and made available for people who love film." (Facets will re-issue a new DVD edition of "The Decalogue" this summer.)
The company is also currently releasing esteemed photographer William Klein's documentary portrait "Muhammad Ali, The Greatest" in venues across the country, and films such as Victor Erice's poetic account of the artistic process "Dream of Light" and Iranian director Miriam Shahriar's gender-bending drama "Daughters of the Sun" continue to travel to theaters nationwide. Facets has also salvaged theatrical rights for such esoterica as Yugoslav maverick Dusan Makavejev's "Love Affair: or, the case of the missing switchboard operator," Hungarian master Bela Tarr's "Almanac of Fall," and Czech filmmaker Jan Nemec's 2001 video feature "Late Night Talks With Mother," among others.
But the bulk of the Chicago-based business's contribution to foreign film is its video rental and sales business, with theatrical releases largely aimed at helping foster ancillary interest. As their website (www.facets.org) proudly declares, "Your Source For World Cinema On Video." With more than 20,000 films to rent and more than 50,000 for sale, Facets is the largest peddler of arthouse films in the world.
Outside of specialized studio fare and their own 400-plus exclusive titles on the Facets Video label (from Czech New Wavers and Iranian mavericks to Russian exiles and Latino newcomers), the company also has partnerships with a number of foreign entities, including Euro-heavy Accent Cinema, the Ibero-American Cinemateca, and ARTE Video (associated with the French-German media organization). In the coming years, the company plans to beef up its Asian and Latin American selections.
The company's top ten best sellers, as of last March, are an exotic collection, sure to instill hope in anyone with doubts about the viability of subtitled films in the U.S. market: among them, Giuseppe Piccioni's 1999 multiple Donatello winner "Not of this World" (1); Maria Luisa Bemberg's "Camila" (3); a collection of short silents from early film pioneer George Melies (5); Tahmineh Milani's controversial Iranian feature "The Hidden Half," which got the filmmaker thrown in jail (7); Andrei Tarkovsky's student thesis film "The Steamroller and the Violin," recently rescued from the Russian film archives (8); and Abbas Kiarostami's much-loved 1990 feature "Close-Up" (10).
The meteoric rise of the DVD market has contributed to Facet's growth from a small exhibition series run out of a former Lutheran church in the mid-1970s to the arthouse force it has become today. Just as the birth of the video rental industry launched the company in the late '70s, DVD is the format of choice for those hardcore movie-loving consumers -- with a penchant for obtaining hard-to-find masterpieces in pristine conditions -- that make up a major part of Facets' business. In 2002, the company more than doubled the number of exclusive titles released on DVD in all previous years combined, and DVD sales figures are "many times VHS figures," according to a Facets spokesperson. Now Facets' new releases all go out on DVD first and foremost (with most titles still coming out in video, as well).
Facets even supplies a pamphlet for its audience of cineastes titled "The 7 Deadly Sins of Library Video Collecting," which includes such blasphemes as "the assumption that Spike Lee is the only African-American who's ever made a film" and "defining 'independent' by films such as 'Fargo,' 'Shakespeare in Love,' and 'The Blair Witch Project' while not including the works of truly independent filmmakers like Jill Godmilow, Barbara Hammer, and Nina Menkes."
Facets' multi-faceted approach to independent exhibition is aided by its newly renovated Cinematheque, one of Chicago's premier indie venues. The house recently hosted the 19th Chicago Latino Film Festival, Carlos Reygadas's Mexican existential wonder "Japon," and a six-film retrospective of Czech director Vera Chytilova. As Chicago critic Roger Ebert once said of Facets' video store/retail operation/arthouse, "It's a little temple of cinema over there." Let the worship continue.